Three church offices or two? (June 28th study)

Throughout history, the church has had to fight against being unduly influenced by the world or popular culture.  The church is a counterculture institution with an otherworldly ethic.  (Remember that the bible paints Christians as exiles and pilgrims in this world (cf. 1-2 Peter).)  One way in which this is evident is in the way the bible sets forth its form of government.  Titus 1.5 is one place that gives us a window into how the church is supposed to be governed.  To appreciate Paul’s words here, we need to check at the door of the church things like democratic representation and equal rights, which have their valid place in broader society, but are not necessarily how we should view the government of Christ’s kingdom – his church – on earth.

In the first part of Titus 1.5, Paul admonishes Titus to bring a measure of order to the young churches that he helped establish on the island of Crete.  One of the marks of a true church is discipline (cf. Matt 16, 18; 1 Cor 14; BC 32).  An essential part of bringing discipline and order to these young churches is electing elders (Titus 1.5b).

The point I would like to highlight is that the office of elder referred to in Titus 1 and other places like 1 Tim 3, includes two classes: those who rule only and those who minister the Word of God and rule.  The NT sets forth three offices that God has given his church for its government: pastors, elders and deacons.  The office of elder is one that carries forward from the OT.  Elders were those who helped rule, judge and perform administrative tasks in the midst of the OT covenant community.  They, however, did not minister the Word of God.  This was reserved for the prophets and the priests (cf. Exodus and Deuteronomy).

When one comes forward to the NT, the term elder is expanded to also include those who minister the Word of God: first the prophets and Apostles during the extraordinary foundation-laying ministry of the church, and then ordained ministers during the (now) ordinary life of the church (cf. Matt 21.23; Acts 6.13; 15.2; 1 Peter 5.1).  In other words, the NT term elder – like that found in Titus 1.5 – includes two classes of ordained men: those who rule and those who preach/teach (cf. 1 Tim 5.17).

Why is this important?  Among other things, it is crucial for the church to affirm that it is only the man who has been called and ordained to the full-time office of pastor (teaching elder), one who has spent years preparing to be an expert in the Word, that is qualified to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments; lead the public worship service on the Lord’s Day (cf. BC 30-31).

The distinction between the minister of the Word and the ruling elder is one important characteristic of the historic Reformed tradition.  It protects the ministry of the Word from those who are not called and not equipped for this holy vocation.  It is for the good of sinners and saints whom God has chosen to convert and sanctify through the means of the faithful ministry of his Word.  In addition to ministers, elders and deacons, God has called all members of the body of Christ to serve him and each other through various gifts he has poured out by his Spirit for the good of the whole church (1 Cor 12; Rom 12).  Also, and unlike the minister of the Word, we all have common and ordinary callings – like plumbers, housewives, accountants etc – outside of the religious life of the church.  What is more, all of us have the God-glorifying calling to love our neighbors as parents, children, fellow citizens etc.

The following are links to the confessions and catechisms that are mentioned above as well as others, which include Scripture references (please note that I do not necessarily endorse everything on the websites that host the confessions/catechisms listed):

Heidelberg Catechism (HC)

Belgic Confession (BC)

Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)

Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC)

Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC)

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